What Babel should be

April 3, 2013
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Credit: Women using phones / Shutterstock

Unified messaging will usher in improved interaction (Photo credit: Women using phones / Shutterstock).

A week back, we featured an update on what was supposedly Google’s latest effort into creating a unified messaging service. Dubbed “Babel,” the unified chat service currently in internal testing supposedly combines Google’s various messaging services and offers cross-device support, group conversations, improved notifications, among other features.

But I have an idea of what Babel should be. Rounding up the supposed features of the upcoming messaging service, I would say I’d like Google to come up with something like Apple’s iMessage, BBM and then some more.

Fragmented

One big gripe I have with Google’s messaging services is that these are fragmented. You have a slew of services like Google Talk, Google+ Messenger, Google Voice, Hangouts, Chrome OS and even email messaging through Gmail. In some cases, these play along nicely, such as Google Talk chats being recorded into conversation threads in Gmail and Google Voice SMS and voice mail going into Gmail. But in most cases, it is not always easy to pick up where you left off when switching to another device or platform.

Even Google Talk, which is supposed to be among the most accessible among Google’s instant messaging services, is not always baked into Android devices and ROMs, which means some users will have to install third-party apps like IMO, IM+ or BeeJive just to chat with online contacts. It does offer choice, but this is not always the most elegant of solutions.

With Android now being the top mobile platform worldwide in terms of numbers, it only makes sense for Google to implement a unified messaging service. Never mind the carriers and their SMS and calling plans. Everything is going to data, and they know it.

Here’s where I think a service that works like iMessage would be excellent. I can already see some advantages, and these should, of course, go beyond what iMessage currently has to offer.

  • Cross-device support. Google should bake its messaging service into all its platforms and devices, including Android, Chrome OS, Chrome and even a desktop application. I want to be able to pick up a conversation on another device seamlessly. Even third-party apps like LINE let you do this. iMessage also has native support from within current iOS and OS X releases. In this regard, I think Babel should work across an array of devices — desktops, smartphones and tablets — as a unified messaging service that takes care of all Google-related communications all within the same protocol.
  • Presence indicators and read receipt. In an enterprise or organization setting, presence is as important as actually exchanging messages. With ubiquitous and persistent data connections on smartphones, a messaging service should also act as a means of telling your colleagues that you’re available, unavailable, busy or whatnot. Of course, those typing, delivered and read receipt indicators are useful during a chat session itself, as it takes the guesswork away when trying to determine if your contact has received that message.
  • SMS fallback. Here’s where iMessage shines. Apple’s devices can fall back to SMS when a data network is not available or if the recipient is not currently connected. This way, you can be assured that your message pushes through even without a reliable data network.
  • Multiple messaging options. Chat should be a good basic feature, but not everyone is satisfied with just text messaging. A unified messaging service should support voice and video, as well. I’d like to be able to switch to voice or video chat with the click or tap of a button. I would also want a messaging service that projects whoever I am talking to in front of me through augmented-reality and Google Glass.

Not just platforms, also languages?

Going beyond messaging, though, I think that a cool feature would be for Babel to enable on-the-fly translations during a chat session or even a voice call.Β The term “Babel” itself has linguistics and communication-related connotations. The Babel biblical account involved a united humanity, in which God confounded humans’ languages and scattered people across lands so that they could not reach heaven by themselves through the tower they were building. A contemporary interpretation of the Babel account, though, identifies it as the cradle of human civilization, which means Babel could be something that does bring together humans regardless of language and culture.

To describe what I would want Babel to be in one word, it would be “seamless.” I already rely on a handful of messaging services to correspond with friends, family members and colleagues, and these include iMessage, Google Talk and even Facebook Messenger. I don’t like fragmentation, but I do like having choice. It’s often cumbersome to have to maintain separate clients for different contacts and platforms, though. If Google were to make things easier through a more unified messaging application, then I’m sold.

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